Review of Sanderock and Attili’s Multimedia Explorations in Urban Policy and Planning

A complete version of this review can be found at: James A. Throgmorton. 2011. Review of Sandercock and Attili’s Multimedia Explorations in Urban Policy and Planning. Journal of Planning Education and Research 31, 1 (Spring): 112-113.

This is a richly illustrated collection of 16 essays plus a preface and introduction, which explores “a new frontier in the urban planning and policy fields, a frontier ‘beyond the flatlands’” (p. xxxi). The “flatlands” (social-science-oriented planning) refers metaphorically to Flatland, Edwin Abbott’s 1882 novel about an imaginary two-dimensional reality and the discord and upheaval produced by the entry of a three-dimensional sphere into it. Exploring this frontier, the editors can see “the potential applications of multimedia – the combination of multiple contents (both traditional and digital: texts, still images, animations, audio and video productions) and interactive platforms (offline interactive CD-ROMs, online websites and forums, digital environments) – in the urban policy and planning fields” (p. xx).

Positioning their book as part of the storytelling turn in planning, they explore ways in which urban professions can become more attuned to what Sandercock has previously called the city of spirit, the city of memory, and the city of desire. In their view, the various essays in the book “demonstrate the incredibly rich potential, through multimedia, for manifesting an epistemology of multiplicity, for providing multiple forms of voice and thus participation” (p. xxi). They point to ways in which multimedia can stimulate dialogue, nurture community engagement and oppositional forms of planning, create opportunities for enlightening research, and “offer transformative learning experiences, ‘educating the heart’ through mobilizing a democracy of the senses” (p. xxi).

My sense is that this is a very admirable collection of essays, which greatly advances the intellectual project of treating stories and storytelling as crucial parts of planning and urban transformation. Although all of the essays are meritorious, I find several of them to be especially valuable: Sandercock’s “From the Campfire to the Computer,” Attili’s “Beyond the Flatlands,” Sandercock’s “Mobilizing the Human Spirit,” Rubin’s “(Re)Presenting the Street,” Wagner’s “Digital Media and the Politics of Disaster Recovery in New Orleans,” Hallenbeck’s “Social Justice and Video,” Attili’s “Representations of an Unsettled City,” Blake’s “Participatory Design and Howard Roark,” Decandia’s “Learning as an Aesthetic Experience,” Dudley’s “Cinema and the ‘City of the Mind,’” and Isserman et al.’s “Stinging Real!”

On the whole, the book is well worth reading by anyone interested in this particular frontier. That said, I also find a few problematic aspects in how Sandercock and Attili map the terrain.

One problematic feature has to do with incorporating multimedia-based storytelling into planning curricula. Sandercock and Attili’s book implicitly cries out for a reconfiguration of planning education away from its focus on the “Flatland” tools of social-science-oriented planning toward a much more interactive and interdisciplinary education focusing on place transformation. This would require building new connections with disciplines in the humanities. At a deeper level, it would also require rethinking the ways in which the traditional staples of planning (microeconomics and statistics, for example) are taught. I doubt that many planning educators would be willing to undertake such a wholesale shift. Nor do I think such a wholesale shift would be wise. What would be really exciting, however, is to see one major planning department take the risk, cut a bold new niche for itself, and reconfigure planning as a creative synthesis of the social sciences, the design arts, and the humanities. Are there any takers out there?

A more important and challenging aspect of Sandercock and Attili’s mapping has to do with the politics of what they advocate. Time and again they and their contributors emphasize the value of multimedia-based storytelling as a means of facilitating interaction, dialogue, collaboration, and participation, especially on the part of traditionally marginalized groups. While writing my review of their book, however, I was also witnessing the rise of the Tea Party movement in the United States (not to mention similar phenomena in Europe). Although the book does not explicitly refer to this movement, members of the Tea Party are influencing action right now, and their views have enormous implications for the viability of the inclusionary tools and policies that Sandercock, Attili and their co-authors highlight.

Although some observers have condemned Tea Partiers as neo-fascist ethno-nationalists, that is not how they (or at least most of them) see themselves. They see themselves as “real Americans,” as oppositional groups who want to “take their country back” from traditionally marginalized groups (e.g., Latinos and African Americans). In other words, members of the Tea Party movement feel threatened by the very groups that the authors of this book want to include. In this context, real dialogue appears profoundly difficult to accomplish or facilitate.

Linking the book and the Tea Party movement, two questions arise: (1) how would multimedia-based storytelling work in the hands of “real Americans”? And (2) can multimedia-based storytelling facilitate constructive dialogue between the Tea Party movement and members of the groups they want to exclude?

With this context in mind, my sense is that Sandercock, Attilli, and their contributors have produced a very fine piece of work that goes awry by narrowly fixating on the practice of planners and other urban professionals while ignoring the forces that are transforming the deep politics of contemporary society. Instead of emphasizing how multimedia-based storytelling can transform planning practice and education, they could have helped readers understand how those the technologies can facilitate constructive engagement with people who fear government, fear planning, fear unfamiliar people, fear change, indeed seem to fear everything.

What to do? In brief, I would strongly encourage Sandercock and Attili to expand on this brilliant exploration of the frontier to probe how multimedia-based storytelling might facilitate productive engagement and shared learning between people who have radically polarized views about the merits of transforming “the flatlands” into something unnervingly new.

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3 Responses to Review of Sanderock and Attili’s Multimedia Explorations in Urban Policy and Planning

  1. Mike says:

    I think you are setting up a false dichotomy here. You have set up the Tea Party folk as people who want to take there country back from groups you characterize as traditionally marginalized groups (Hispanics and Latinos), but I see that as a mis-characterization of our objectives. I think our primary objection is to take the country back from the social engineers of technocratic knowledge worker class (the NPR listeners and university employees) who make up the coalition.

    Listen again to the stuff that we Tea Party folks are exchanging with each other, like the following.

    The Tea Party folk see the technocrats as largely lacking the expertise they claim for themselves. Instead we see the technocrats as either deliberately or unintentionally engaging in rent seeking/self-dealing while claiming to be working for the common good. So we distrust them.

    What is interesting is that sometimes the knowledge worker class does agree with the Tea Party folks. Both the Tea Party folks and the knowledge workers would probably say the results of Robert Moses and Le Corbusier were largely a disaster and neither would want to build another Pruitt–Igoe . The difference is that the knowledge worker class presumes that modern planning practices like smart growth will work in the future because planners have learned from there past mistakes while the Tea Party folks see smart growth or other planning fads as most likely leading to more money squandered on future planning disasters. Both sides took different lessons from the failures of past urban renewal projects, the knowledge worker class learned that past planning ideas didn’t work and needed to be revised, while the Tea Party folks concluded the planning function itself doesn’t work and needs to be eliminated.–Igoe

    Remember in most areas of our lives, the technocrats seem to have largely failed us. Most urban renewal projects didn’t make the neighborhoods they impacted better. Most past school reformed efforts like “new math” and “whole language instruction” also didn’t make the public schools better. As Ronald Reagan said the 10 most terrifying words in world are “I am with the government and we’re here to help”. That phrase may not resonate with you, but it does with the average Tea Party folk. The financial bailouts of the banking industry largely bailed out the investment bankers (especially Goldman Sachs whose employees overwhelmingly backed Obama in the last election) and banking executives while largely doing relatively little to preserve less politically connected individuals. After the 2008 elections the left controlled the House, the Senate and the Presidency so the claim that things would be better if the left just had more power rings hollow. For all of the talk about Hope and Change, after Obama won the primary change was the complete marginalization of Cindy Sheehan and the anti-war movement in the mainstream media. (When was the last time anyone did any story about Camp Casey?)

    It is tough to come up with a more regulated industry in this country than the housing industry. What you can build, how you can build it, where you can build it, how you can finance it, just about every part of the housing industry from beginning to end is incredibly highly regulated. Zoning, construction standards, lending standards, who you can rent to, how to buy and sell a property all of that is incredibly regulated. Yet this most regulated of industries basically almost blew up the economy.

    The technocrats think this is a call for even more regulation. But the Tea Party folks like myself see it as indictment of the regulatory state itself. If the regulatory agencies charged with preventing these financial problems don’t work, why continue to have them?

    Because you identify with the technocratic class, you may be somewhat in denial of other peoples resistance to it. But the resistance is there.

    • jthrog65 says:

      Thank you for reading my short review and for offering your comments on it.

      You raise many points, but four strike me as being most interesting: (1) that there is a class of people identifiable as “social engineers of technocratic knowledge worker class” (or “the technocratic class” or “knowledge worker class”), and that the people in this class do not possess the expertise they claim for themselves; (2) that “Tea Party folks” and this “knowledge worker class” might agree that urban renewal failed but have different interpretations about why it failed; (3) “in most areas of our lives [e.g., the financial bailout of Wall Street financiers], the technocrats seem to have largely failed us”; and (4) the collapse of the housing industry is due to over regulation by “the regulatory state.”

      As for the first, I don’t see how you can make the claim in the way you do without also being part of the very class of people you critique. Perhaps I am mistaken, but I presume that you have been well trained in some discipline at some university. Or perhaps you limit membership in the class you critique to public employees who disagree with you politically.

      If you read the other posts on this site, you will see that I have always been very critical of public policy experts who believe they know what should be done and expect others to respond accordingly. But I also value expertise; I would not want to drive on a bridge I designed. The issue for me has always been about wisdom, not expertise.

      As for the second, I agree with you. I would also agree with your condemnation of the Wall Street bailout, but I would interpret it differently than you would.

      Lastly I note that you do not mention that the housing industry is heavily subsidized by the federal government, primarily through the income tax deduction for mortgage interest.

      More to the point, am I correct in inferring that you think of yourself as a libertarian? If you do, I would be very curious to know whether you think transnational corporations (such as BP) and the financial sector should be freed from all regulation? Should their success/failure be left entirely to market interaction?

      Again, thanks for commenting.

  2. Mike says:

    Groups are often identified by who donates to them. Look at the profiles of people who donated to In the highly favorable profiles I have read about, they have been described as organizing the knowledge workers, stating that there largest sources of donors are places like the Univerisity of California system, and various other universities. These same profiles claim that this class of donors is filled with educated knowledge workers favoring technocratic solutions to modern problems.

    I do not identify with the group because I see them as misguided. Because I think there premises are faulty, I think there conclusions are wrong.

    There is a difference between expertise and claims for expertise. While I do value substantive expertise when I see it. I see government as rarely having the ability to discern expertise and even when it does, I see the system often working at cross purposes to prevent people with actual expertise from implementing their ideas or gaining power in the government.

    First the technocrats presume that government is an effective check on corporate power. But I think in practice government is much more often an instrument of corporate power rather than a restraint on corporate power. Obama won on a platform of Hope and Change. For two years the democrats controlled both the House and the Senate with an electoral mandate. Yet even after the financial industry blew up the economy, substantively what new regulatory reforms did we have to prevent that from re-occurring? Instead the banking industry pretty much protected itself. Bush may or may not have been an idiot, but changing parties didn’t really appreciably change the outcome. Money was still redistributed from the masses to the plutocrats in the banking industry. So was the problem merely that Bush manged to become President as the people argued or is the problem that the thesis that government is an effective check on corporate power just wrong? Obama used to be a community organizer and a former professor at the University of Chicago. So he really should be a true believer in the effectiveness of government as a check on corporate power. When he got elected, we kept reading about how brilliant his administration was supposed to be. So if even when Obama got elected and the left took the House and Senate, why was government still so inept to the task of regulating the financial industry? If you have a true believer in charge of smart people with governing majorities in both the House and Senate and you still can’t get it done, can anyone get it done?

    Name a regulated industry and pretty much what we see is regulatory capture. The utilities have captured the PUC. The Cargil, WR Grace and Monsanto have captured the Department of Agriculture. Since the time of Eisenhower the military contractors have pretty much captured the Pentagon. The major accounting firms have captured the SEC. What I don’t see is much evidence for the thesis that government is an effective check on corporate power. Instead I see government as pretty much a tool of corporate power.

    One of the points that left likes to make in criticizing George Bush was that he put Micheal D. Brown in charge of FEMA during the Hurricane Katrina disaster. But what they tend to paper over is that after Franklin Raines helped Vernon Jordon secure employment for Monica Lewinsky, President Clinton got Franklin Raines installed as the head of Fannie Mae. Raines was in charge of Fannie Mae during the period that Fannie Mae had accounting irregularities that had the effect of overstating Fannie Mae’s income resulting in Raines receiving extra compensation under Fannie Mae’s bonus system. The Ofheo sought 90 million in payments to Raines but because he was so politically connected he was able to settle for less than 3 million and that amount was covered by Fannie Mae’s insurance policy.

    So while you were asking do I value expertise, yes I do. But I see government in practice, no matter who is in charge of it, as tending to put people in power who aren’t necessarily competent and often not experts in a meaningful sense of the term. Instead large political donors become department heads, ambassadors and such. I don’t see that as a fault merely of President Bush’s administration, but as a fault of the current system, no matter who is at the head of it. The system empowers people who are incompetent, self dealing and/or corrupt.

    What I am skeptical of is the argument that any agency put in charge of regulating an industry won’t get captured by it. I fear if we create a government agency in charge of regulating off shore oil drilling that the most likely consequence is that the agency will end up insuring and underpricing the social cost of providing that liability insurance for off shore drilling disasters in the way that the nuclear power industry got the feds to subsidize its liability costs in a nuclear disaster. Public interest in monitoring the effectiveness of the off shore drilling industry regulator is fleeting. But industries interest in changing the focus of the regulator’s direction is perpetual. Moreover the people put in charge of the regulator are likely to come from industry that it regulates. Who else has the right resume? Who has an interest in donating to a campaign?

    Second in a two party system there will be times when the opposition party will be in charge of the government. So while you may have faith in President Obama to come up with a fair and competent regulator for the off shore oil industry (I don’t) , but what happens when we get a President Palin or someone like her that I assume you would strongly oppose? How many Republican administrations have we had since WW2? For how long do you think the regulator will last before it too gets captured by industry?

    When private enterprise does a poor job of providing a good or service, it faces the prospect of bankruptcy. With the government, doing a poor job is often a pretext for expanding its budget. While I realize that not all services can be provided at a profit, I see that as a reason for expanding the not for profit sector, not necessarily for expanding the role of government.

    Because I think government is more likely to be an instrument of corporate power than a restraint on corporate power, I do favor steps to shrink the size of government. Absent that, I favor steps to devolve power downwards to lower levels of government. But as the government power gets centralized into larger branches of government like at the state or federal level, the government tends to be captured more by outside interests and the ability of citizens to provide effective oversight diminishes. I wish most government power and funding wasn’t concentrated with the feds but local governments. At the PTA level, from what I have seen democracy seems a lot more effective than at the national level. But the left seems a lot more interest in expanding the federal government than the local government. Where as I would much rather shrink the feds and if we grew the government anywhere grow the local governments.

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